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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Questions about writing a series


That is the question which haunts new writers.  I often see people jumping into doing a series, and yet I'm not convinced they have totally considered all the angles and pitfalls.  It’s as if they believe you must write a series—what is expected of all writers—rather than they created a running concept from the very start.  To build a successful series takes a lot of consideration and development.  You should be plotting book three and four before you type The End to book one.  One of the best authors at plotting out a series and sustaining it is Lynsay Sands with her Argeneau vampires—now around thirty books strong!  She actually wrote out three full novels, before pitching the vampires to her editor.


To start, you should draw up an overall outline to guide you in the journey, and you must keep in mind that you need something fresh to express with each book.  It’s simply not enough to give the readers story after story, you have to make them anticipate the second, third and fourth books before they are even written, to have them hungry for more.  I have seen several writers who did series—good writers, with WOW first books.  Sadly, over time they have lost part of their audience because it felt like they deliver the same novels each time, just retold with different names to the characters.  That is the quick path to losing your devoted readers, which  you worked so hard to get. 


Some books are fine as stand-alone offerings.  One successful author, who I have read for about thirty years, wrote dozens of novels, all as stand-alone titles.  I loved her stories, and have reread many of them simply because they were so delightful.  At some point—assuming her publisher thought series were a better marketing tool—she began to do three books to a series.  The problem quickly became apparent that she lacked the ability to sustain the idea over the trilogy.  Her lead book would be her typical utterly witty and brilliant brew.  The second tied up loose ends, and allowed the readers to follow her hero and heroine into a further adventure.  While the second book was interesting, a good read, it was a less dazzling entry.  The last one showed her troubles in sustaining the characters into the third outing.  It was as if she used up all she had to say about them, so she filled up the third one with less entertaining secondary characters, trying to prop up the hero and heroine.  It clearly revealed she was stretching a one-book-concept into three, padding her stories, because the publisher thought a series would make more money for them.


So from the start, if you hope to create a series and keep your readers enthralled, you cannot write manuscript one and then say, “What do I do next?”  You need to look beyond.  Where would you like to go after book one?  After book two?  Are you planning to follow one set of characters into other adventures, or are you pairing various characters that will be connected by a common theme—a town, a period or a special setting?  You have to map ahead and be farseeing to plan where you are going to take your series, or you might find yourself struggling to sustain your passion for the series—and so will the readers.


Another tricky problem that comes to mind—will each book be a stand-alone title—meaning you can pick up any title in the series and not have to read the previous  novels to understand what is happening?  Or, will you do a world-building project?  Think of Game of Thrones.  JRR Martin has built a whole world with heroes and heroines, villains, races, myths, legends, wars, towns, and countries!  However, if you pick up A Song of Fire and Ice without first reading A Clash of Kings you might find yourself struggling to make heads or tails of much that is happening.  Each style has their own rewards and their own risks.  By asking these questions, you can figure out what is best for you and your aims.  Books take time to write.  People are still waiting for Martin’s latest saga—for nearly a decade!  The television series has run into eight seasons and he hasn't produced his latest title in that period, leaving the television writers to decide the fate of his characters as the series comes to a close!  Interlocking novels can capture your readers and pull them along from book-to-book.  Only remember, stand-alone versions offer the readers the opportunity to pick up book four of a series of seven, and not feel like they are missing out on half of the story by coming into the "middle of your world”.  As a previous bookseller, I often heard customers say, “Oh, this is book three?  I haven’t read the first two.”  They either wait to buy the newest book until they can find the previous copies of the others, or they might forgo the purchase entirely.  Thus, accessibility of jumping into the series might be something you wish to consider.


You will also face another conundrum— how much information do you include in the sequels?  If you are reading a series front-to-back, you don’t want to bore those loyal readers with repeating the same information dump in each book.  When you have a mythos to your storyline you need to remain true throughout, yet you can run into slowing down the action of your plot by repeating the premise found in each novel.  Your readers will complain, “Yeah, yeah, we already know that. . .get to the story!”  And we all know boring the reader is a big no-no.  On, the other hand, if you don’t ground each book with your core codex, a reader who comes into the series through book three or four will be scratching their head and not knowing what went on before that started the whole journey.  


One of the biggest mistakes series writers can make is failing to maintain a “bible” —i.e. a chart, log, etc. that covers each character or important details.  Most traditional publishers run style sheets, which carry specifics of each character—what they look like (hair, eyes, height, flaws, scars, birthdays. . .anything that might show up again).  I even run a calendar for each book.  On what day is something happening?  What month?  These are particulars that you are positive you will remember.  But will you?  Six years down the road, you might be surprised what you have forgotten.  Did your hero have blue eyes or green?  I recall years ago one author was asked to write a trilogy, based on the daughters of a series she had penned ten years before.  She had trouble recalling the hair color of her original ladies!  Worse, this was back before eBooks and computers.  The original novels had been out of print for years, so she had trouble finding a copy to revisit to get details correct.


So, to avoid the snares of series writing, you really should do some serious thinking upon why you want to write a series way before you finish that first novel.  To recap:  1) Figure out if you really need or wish to write a series.  2)  Once you set out on that determined path—learn to maintain your bible with all the details that will root your world  3) Decide which style of series you plan on doing—stand-alone novels that are connected by a common codex, or a series that follows a character(s) through different adventures.  

Once you figure out those hurdles, you will have a better handle on confidently creating an engaging series that will keep your readers begging for more, and you looking forward to penning the next one...and the next.



© 2017, All Rights Reserved
Currently has two series in production—Medieval Scottish Historicals for Prairie Rose Publications —The Dragons of Challon™, and Paranormal-Contemporary romances for Montlake Romance at Amazon Publishing Sisters of Colford Hall™ and is launching a new Medieval series for Prairie Rose PublicationsHell Knights: Knights of Hellborne™

http://nattering.deborahmacgillivray.com 
Twitter - https://twitter.com/Scotladywriter 
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21 comments:

  1. Deborah, thanks for a great post--I'm looking forward to many more in the months to come, lady! This really hit the nail on the head, and believe me, I'm in AWE of people who can write series books and keep them fresh and entertaining. I won't even attempt it. I have an idea for a sequel for one of my earlier stories, but as for a series spinoff for any of my others, I just don't think I could do it with any success. I truly do admire authors such as yourself who are able to "connect the dots"--in this case, the stories-- and keep the reader wanting more, more, more!

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    1. thank you for asking. I have a diverse view of writing and publishing, so hopefully people can find the information helpful to their aims.

      I made the funny attempt to get past the book 1, 2, 3 hurdle by writing the Sisters of Colford Hall all in the same time frame. If you don't keep the bible you can really mess up. Phone calls made in book 1, need to dovetail into books 2 and 3. I felt like a juggler trying to keep all the balls in the air!! lol

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  2. Great advice well delivered. At this point, a series is not planned, other than stories in the same town, but not truly connected. I shall keep your advice handy for future reference and so appreciate you sharing your knowledge. Doris

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  3. It can be a big help to take that time to do a bit of planning. I had my series bibles set, and then along came the house fire. I lost everything--including the bibles! It really drove home how much I relied on them for details to keep the continuity. Thanks!

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  4. You have given some sound advice here, Deborah. I learned everything on my own using other authors as my guides. I can only hope that I did the Wildings series as I should have. After I realized I was writing a series, I tried to introduce future characters with their flaws or desires in advance of their actual story. I hope I got readers interested in what would happen to them enough to buy the next book. I avoided cliff-hangers and tried to make each book stand alone. Mine is more like a saga going down the generations and I had to keep track of how they were related, what they looked like if they had been previously described and unique qualities. I even had to make a family tree. I made some mistakes for certain. It would have been easier if I had built a town with these characters instead of a family. So, that's what I intend to do next.
    If I had had a fire at my house the way you did, I would have lost my notebooks containing all the info and that would have been VERY bad.
    You're right about those trilogies in which the author kind of loses the readers' attention because of using the same hero over and over or not making the stories each gripping and unique. I stopped reading a famous author because every trilogy was 3 brothers who were so similar in each trilogy I couldn't tell one trilogy from another. I feel that the publisher forced those trilogies for commercial reasons. The author had been very diverse in the beginning of her career, but in the end she only wrote western romances and those same ol' 3 brothers and ran aground. Lesson learned.
    This was a super article for anyone thinking of writing a series.

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    1. I think most of us have learned by trial and error, finding our way. When authors gave me advise, like Lynsay Sands and the late Maggie Davis, I would be so thrilled they took the time. I would ask if there was something I could do to pay them back, and they always said pay it forward, help those coming behind you. So this is my trying to give a few tips to those just starting out.

      The family three is a good point, too. A good series tends to branch out, instead of travel in a line, so keeping up how people are related is very good idea.

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  5. Excellent, Deborah, as you do everything.
    I wrote a series before I knew "how to write" and knew nothing about submitting or publishing....this was before ebooks.
    The series was a family saga. I ended up making...drawing...a genealogical chart which really came in handy. After the three "Camerons of Texas", I had offspring, marriages, etc. Certainly I did not use all of the family members. But the Camerons of Texas have been very successful over time. Now, they are in the capable hands of my good friend and editor Cheryl. She always knows
    what to do next.
    Sometimes a "series" is really not...rather just three books vaguely linked.
    Thanks again for the wealth of information you shared with us.

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  6. Every point you made is why I haven't attempted a series. However, if I ever go down the series path, I'm leaning toward writing core-related stand alones rather than interconnected stories.

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    1. I have tried to walk the tightrope, a hybrid of both. It's not been easy, but people so often buy that third book so I don't want them floundering. There was only a year between my first and second historical, but due to publisher moving, downsizing and regrouping, I had a two year lag before the third came out. Having it more stand alone helped for I picked up a lot of readers who had missed the first two. NOW that isn't so much of a problem, but when you only had print, it was often hard for people to find your backlist.

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  8. Ms. Macgillivray,
    I found your writing here informative, and somewhat frightening. My first five successful books, are frankly, an accidental series. In the first story I created a world that I was personally enamored with. So, I dove into a second story. Really, for my own amusement.
    When both were finished, I got serious, and began to rewrite, and to self-edit (an exercise I now equate to a good self-flogging. Painful, and generally useless. One must have an excellent editor.)
    As a result of my infatuation with my world, I produced the aforementioned five book series. I had taken the conscious decision to create each book as a stand-alone story. Each takes place in the same ‘universe’, and there are crossover characters, but each novel is its own adventure.
    Had I read your article before starting, I might not have begun. However, with the stories behind me now, I truly wish I had read it beforehand.
    Thanks to the acquaintances I’ve met through Prairie Rose, I have learned an incredible amount about the craft, much of it from these blogs, for which I will be internally grateful.
    I have printed your article and added it to my “scrap book of highly significant lessons”, for the future.
    For in truth, there lurks in the back of my mind a series based in a vast world, filled with endless nuisance, rich detail, and populated with monsters, sorcerers, demons, and those things that thump in the night.


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    1. Sorry, didn't meant it to be frightening, just markers to make you consider what all series writers have to face. It sounds like you have accomplished all this on your own. Sometimes, like Nike ads say, you just have to "do it".

      Sounds like the WIP brewing at the back of your mind will be a good one. Please let me know when you start getting them out. Sounds like my kind of read!.

      Editors can be such a vital help in the process. I had Hilary Sares -- wonderful lady--for the historicals, and Chris Keeslar for the paranomals. Both took time to really discuss things in my works, and I cannot thank them enough. They pushed me, encouraged me, and made me consider things about writing that really helped. Right now I have the wonderful Cheryl Pearson, who I cannot praise enough. I admire Indy writers, but I simply need and edit with a whip behind me. :-) When you get a good one, you hang onto if you can.

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    2. Oh...don't I know it. Cheryl can vouch for that!

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    3. Y'all both know how I look with my hair blowing like a wild maniac and my whip in my hand, cackling my "witch" laugh. LOL

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  9. I love this advice. Having accidentally stumbled into writing a series (had a character that wouldn't shut up), doing this work upfront would have saved me much angst.

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  10. I so agree with Deborah that having the Bible is as necessary as breathing. If you don't keep track of the details, including things like eye and hair color, you spend a horrible amount of time thumbing through previous books to find facts.
    And, also, it's necessary in a series that each hero/heroine have a unique trait that makes him/her different from the others in a series.

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  11. Good information, Deborah. Thank you. I have a series going with PRP and keeping the characters' ages, looks, etc. is always a challenge.

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    1. As we are doing it, we go "oh, easy, peasy, I will remember all this. When you get several books into the series you will be surprised about things you forget!!

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  12. A well-written, informative blog, Deborah. I'm glad you expounded on the writer's Bible. I can't stress enough the importance of doing this, especially if one writes in spurts due to working full-time. When I reread my draft I realized I'd lost an entire week, and it was crucial to cover the time frame because all the action took place in the full phase of the moon. I made up a calendar and entered what happened each day or at least wrote "no action" because the story jumped ahead three days to the next action. I did the hair/eye colours, etc., too, because one does forget when there are multiple characters. Thanks for sharing your extensive knowledge/writing expertise and by the way...I LOVE your books and how one is immediately drawn into the medieval setting or the contemporary setting.

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    1. Thank you. I came from a researchers background, so I literally spent years researching plotting out the Historicals. I had this massive map, and chart that show on any day for a 10 year period, where Edward I was, where William Wallace and Robert the Bruce was. What was happening in Scotland. I could easily glance at the wall, and make sure I had things right, or if I chose to fictionalize those people, I didn't have them in two place at once!!!

      But even with the Contemporaries, I realized I had to have one. Chris Keesler bought the series and the first thing he said was "I want you to make a bible." I assured him I was already doing that.

      Even if you started out with a single title, which quickly spun a series, it will save you time to paused and begin that bible.

      Thanks! Such praise coming from such a beautiful writer make my heart sing!

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  13. Deborah. Such a wealth of information offered so precisely and so informatively. Thank you for pointing out all we need to think about before taking such a plung and the possible pitfalls if not carful and diligent. The way you laid it all out for anyone planning to do a series certainly is more than valuable. Great advice and food for thought. I love your series of the Challons as I've said before. You future series sounds awesome with only the title. Wishing you the best.

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